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Clinton's 'Cute-and-Little' Conundrum With Young Female Voters

02/05/2016 03:09 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2016
  • Kathleen Reardon Professor Emerita, USC Marshall School; Author, 'The Secret Handshake' and 'Shadow Campus'
Matthew Cavanaugh via Getty Images

Hillary Clinton finds it "amazing" that Iowa young female voters preferred Bernie Sanders. It's a bitter pill to for Secretary Clinton. But beyond the matter of personal choice, there are some reasons that are both natural and inevitable in our society.

For starters, it doesn't help Clinton that many media outlets "report" incorrectly that Bernie Sanders is promoting free tuition at all colleges, both public and private. The "Issues" page on Sanders' website reads: "It's time to make college tuition free and debt free" but just below that, the subhead states: "Make tuition free at public colleges and universities." There's little difference there from Clinton's own position on making college affordable for everyone. Nor is "debt-free" to be found in the fine print on Sanders' website. He wants to reduce the interest rates on college loans; so does Clinton.

CNN touts ad nauseam that people believe Bernie Sanders more than Secretary Clinton. Indeed, Senator Sanders is both a good man and an appealing candidate. His call for political "revolution" and his refreshing anti-establishment stance attract young voters, much as demands for change did the youth of the 1960s.

But there's something else going on here that enables young women to lean away from Clinton, something I've observed myself and for which I've found confirmation in the research on gender differences.

Most young women go through a "cute-and-little phase" (essentially early in their careers), when mentors aren't hard to find, colleagues (including men) are often helpful and the world seems like a place where hard work will surely enable them to grasp the brass ring. Inequities in pay and promotion seem like a thing of the past, since their current experience is pretty good. Why? Because when a woman is perceived as "cute-and-little," her success threatens no one with significant power.

As women grow out of this stage, however, they're often blindsided by the politics where they work. They discover that being good at their job starts to threaten others. "Just do your job well and they can't stop you" becomes less of a workable strategy. Subtle political machinations begin to chip away at once-promising careers. Unprepared women may wonder what's happened to them unless or until they realize they've progressed from being perceived as "harmless" to being "threatening."

Exacerbating this is something Georgetown Linguistics Professor Deborah Tannen describes as being marked. How we speak, what we wear -- the height of our shoe heels for starters -- are all part of the impressions we create. If any of these fail to appeal to a particular group, the common result may be harsh criticism.

As Sheryl Sandberg argues "It's easy to dislike the few senior women out there." They are an enigma. Sandberg believes if women held half the positions of power, it would be harder to dislike all of them.

Women often adopt vocal and verbal mannerisms of male leaders at the risk of being labeled unfeminine. Female leaders don't demure in a conflict merely to appear feminine. Women who aspire to leadership change over time in order to survive and progress. They tweak their voices, their wardrobes and other modes of self-presentation. But such changes can look like contradictions rather than astute adjustment to the arenas where they work.

If Hillary Clinton is to reach young women, she'll need to address the "cute-and-little" conundrum. It's an uphill battle, because most young women know little of the politics that ultimately will keep them out of leadership positions.

Maybe young women will have more latitude than Secretary Clinton has had in tweaking, in expressing what they perceive as "femininity." But who they are now is not who they will be forever. Telling young women this without sounding condescending is a challenge. Hindsight is 20/20.

Even if they don't decide to vote for Clinton when their eyes are opened to how different their lives are likely to be in a few years, at least they will have been warned. A good many may notice gratuitous hate-mongering more often, along with unsupported media "reports" and gender-based cheap shots. They may refuse to spread the venom. At least they may realize that where they are now is a lot like where Clinton was at their age and that she and they have more in common than meets the eye.

Kathleen also blogs here.

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